The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
How the Archives Gets its Records (or, Golden Lion Tamarins Galore)
If you're a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed that we've written a lot about golden lion tamarins in the last year. There have been various posts here on The Bigger Picture and another on our sister blog, the Field Book Project blog. While I've publicly admitted that I think these tiny monkeys are adorable, the main reason they've captured our attention this year is because of a recent influx of tamarin-related research records into the Archives. In fact, this flood of Golden Lion Tamarin records is a good example of how the Archives typically takes in the many items that make up our collections.
As the repository for the institutional records of the Smithsonian, typically staff maintain records (such as correspondence, reports, or project files) in their offices for a certain period of time during which they are still actively being used. Staff then transfer the inactive records to the archives in regular intervals. This model encourages staff to set up a cycle in which they are, in theory, transferring inactive files to the archives as fast as they are creating new files. Researchers also benefit from this model because the records are available from the archives in a timely manner.
This model works well for records that are filed by fiscal year or that relate to a project with a specified end-date. For these types of records, it is easier to decide when they have become inactive. Many records, however, relate to long-term, ongoing matters. There may be individual documents that are clearly no longer being actively used, but the overall body of records is still active. In these cases, staff generally keep the records on-site "indefinitely."
So when do these records finally find their way to the archives? We are frequently contacted by staff who are about to retire (or who are already retired but still working under emeritus status) and have thirty, forty, or even fifty years of records to transfer to the archives.We are also frequently contacted by staff who are moving to a new office, losing storage space, or have simply run out of room. Quite often they are either forced to reduce the amount of files they are maintaining or, in the process or packing, are able to more easily identify which records are inactive.
The influx of golden lion tamarin records came about as a combination of factors. Many of the staff of the National Zoological Park's former Department of Zoological Research have retired or are close to retirement. In addition, several of the rooms where they had been storing records were slated to be repurposed. Fortunately, staff were given several years to move out of the rooms. Since the records cleanout began in 2007, over 250 cubic feet of records have been transferred to the archives from this one building. A significant percentage of those records happened to pertain to golden lion tamarin research and conservation.
Will there be more posts about golden lion tamarins? Possibly. We're not finished processing all of these records yet and we don't know what interesting tidbits we may come across. In the meantime, approximately 1,100 cubic feet of records are transferred to the archives from across the Smithsonian each year and will inspire us to write on all sorts of subjects.